I made a mistake and it’s making me question customer expectations

I have known for a long time that the customer is always right. It’s something that I thank my high school and university days for, which is when I worked at Coles for many hours each week. Back then, there were no self-serve checkouts and after a few years on the registers myself I was put in charge of the “front end” which meant – in charge of all the registers, the front end roster (think tea breaks, lunch breaks and scheduling shifts) and customer service (which was everything from scanning errors, to product returns, to damaged goods and complaints). It was the best training in customer service I could have ever asked for and I have understood ever since, the importance in making sure the customer is always happy and how to think on my feet to solve problems.

I also learnt how to apply the necessary professionalism in dealing with customers and I’ve always made a point of prioritising this in my own business. It means that the team and I pride ourselves on our work ethic, our fast response times, on not calling or emailing professional contacts out of work hours (unless it’s urgent), on always coming up with a solution, on exceeding expectations and on punching above our weight as a small team. But occasionally I think it backfires on us. Because the downside of being professional and trying to match the service of a big organisation, is that customers can expect perfection. And we are all human.

Last week we made a mistake. It was a small mistake where we had inconsistent information across a few spots on our website. It was a result of a favourable change we had made late in the piece for our customers, but the issue was that we hadn’t correctly updated our website across all pages before we made it live. As soon as we sent out an email directing people to the page, a person contacted us to clarify what the correct information was – which alerted us to the problem, which we immediately fixed.

About the same time we got another email. It pointed out that they would not be purchasing from us as the information online was misleading. They went on to say that it was not what they would expect from an organisation like ours.

The email was short, but cut deep. It was one of those emails that makes your heart beat a little faster and the stress gurgle in your stomach. Even though the issue was fixed within five minutes and was an honest error, myself and the team still felt gutted to receive this feedback. It was the feeling that all your hard work is ruined because of a small, innocent mistake. It was the weight of customer expectations and the disappointment of missing the mark. And if I’m honest, it was also a little bit of disappointment for the expectations of perfection that was thrust upon us and the assumption that we would ever deliberately mislead people.

But did you see how I said “team” just above? That’s one of those professionalism things I was talking about. In reality it was just me and one team member who had anything to do with this work. We are a small business who delivers a lot with a tiny team. And in this case, we had not checked our work well enough (which fortunately is rare).

And to be really honest, when I saw the complaint email come through at around 3:50pm I was sitting at home, with my 3 kids, plus a friend and her 2 kids and we were trying to get homework done (the reality of a young family!)

Being someone who values customer service, as soon as I saw this issue on my phone, I grabbed my computer, begged the kids to give me a few minutes to think (which they did not!) and I wrote a short reply to the email where I admitted we had made a mistake, apologised profusely and clarified the correct details of the offer.  In response I got an email praising me on the fast response – and saying that that was what is expected from my business.

Now I have to wonder what the relationship between customer service, professionalism and expectation is. Because this encounter made me question the expectations that I’m setting and left me wondering if they are reasonable.

Is it possible that we overdo the professionalism and as a result, set our customer’s expectation to a level where we can never make a mistake? Does the fact that I rarely talk about our team size lead people to believe that we have an army of team members ready to respond at any time of the day and night? Do we need to reply to everything within 30 mins just to maintain customer expectations? If it takes longer, have we failed? It seems that somehow the bar has been set at “infallible”.

And I think about more questions too: do all customers have such high expectations? Is it just my business that people expect this from? Or is it every customer and every business? And is that a reasonable expectation to put on people, on the team, on anyone? Should we assume really high expectations from our current customers and those who aren’t? Or should there be a difference?


Professionalism influences customer expectation

When I think about it, I have to admit, “professionalism” amongst small businesses isn’t as much of a standard as it used to be. Now is the time where some business owners don’t publicly differentiate between their professional and personal life. Where some people overshare on social media, some openly work from home and go surfing at lunch, talk about all the areas of their life seamlessly and the boundary lines are blurrier than ever. Maybe they have the right idea because they are showing the blurry lines and being honest about where they are and what they are doing. And I don’t doubt that they still deliver what they promise to do.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m personally super comfortable in telling our customers that we do all that we do with less than 3 full time employees. Or sharing that I often work school hours as I have three kids that need me just as much as my business does. Or that I work a lot of nights to catch up, to write blog articles (like this) and to make up the hours. Because it really shouldn’t matter and there are no reasons for our customers to doubt our commitment or our dedication.

Even in the midst of supervising homework with 5 kids under 11 last week, I was able to deal with a situation, to get a response and solve a problem. But it’s led me here; to question the bar I have set, to help me to be a bit more honest and to request more understanding to allow a basic mistake without having the standards of the whole company questioned.

What Now

I think in the age of “instant”, we all need to be careful to consider the expectations that we are putting on businesses, teams and others for fast turnaround times, for no-mistake work and for long hours. After all, everyone’s expectations are often pretty high for non-time-critical work and it only creates stress. It’s easy to be nice and kind and give people the benefit of the doubt, to ask a question rather than to criticise, and to believe that most people aren’t trying to be misleading or dishonest. Let’s be kind to each other, let’s keep our expectations reasonable, and hopefully our customers will too.